CHAPTER SIX (cont.)
THE RELEVANCE OF LITERARY MAGAZINES
Larry: Could you tell us quickly how you would start a magazine again, not necessarily in Washington, but in a similar city?
WILLIAM: You have to have the usual mixture of idealism and insanity, to confront all the problems. I was lucky because I knew the kinds of things I had to do. The wonderful quality about starting a literary magazine is that you don’t know anything and you make 100 mistakes along the way. Everybody who has been in the business, rather nonbusiness, since we’ve never been in business, will tell you not to go ahead. The problems are insurmountable. But the wonder of this in America and other countries is that no matter what you tell people, some will still go ahead. And I think that’s a very healthy sign.
Valerie: Are you financially solvent?
Valerie: You don’t think it’s possible to have a self-sustaining literary magazine?
WILLIAM: I don’t think so. Even the subsidized ones like “Kenyon Review” and others are slowly going out of existence. It’s just impossible. It costs more to print an issue than you could ever sell it for.
Valerie: I read that there was one distributor named DeBoer for literary magazines in Hoboken, New Jersey and that because he was ill, a whole lot of literary magazines would never get to the market.
WILLIAM: That’s probably true. Yes, although many magazine editors do not like to let distributors get their magazine, they make an awful lot of money on it, 50% or so. In my case I wanted the magazines back that did not sell. One distributor on the West Coast rips off the covers of the unsold ones. They take 50% or 60% before they start to sell and give you back damaged copies.
Ann Roche: Why do they rip off the covers?
WILLIAM: That’s a distributor’s method of showing how many copies didn’t sell. Instead of sending the whole issue back they just send the cover to show they didn’t sell it. It’s okay to do to “Life,” but to a magazine, “Voyages,” it’s a valuable loss.
Nancy Williamson: The distributor in Boston does the same thing with “The Second Wave,” the magazine we’ve been publishing in Boston. We thought that if we could only get a distributor, the magazine would be all over the U.S. on the book stands. But our distributor didn’t tell us anything, except the percentage he would get. He didn’t say that all he does is dump a package at the newsstand, where the owner of the stand then decides whether to put it on the stand or not. And our woman’s movement magazine is clearly something that most men who run a newsstand do not want to sell. We would go around and find the magazines way in back with the pornographic stuff. We’d go in and talk to them and discover that if you offer the man at the newsstand 10% more than you’re already giving the distributor, he’ll put it out on the front shelf for maybe a few weeks. The magazine cost us 35c to print and sold for 75c with the distributor and newsstand men taking the difference. In the end we received very little money back but a lot of magazines with ripped off covers.
Valerie: Do you think that there is more activity in small magazines on the East Coast or the West Coast?
WILLIAM: In big population centers there are very few really first rate little magazine bookstores. San Francisco has some. The Gotham in New York, of course, is the greatest. The peculiar thing I found about my magazine is that interest came from incredible places like Bowsmith, Montana. But more people will buy copies in New York than in Washington. I don’t have a distributor for “Voyages”. I distribute them myself, putting some here, some there. The last subscription I received came from The Institute of Oceanography in Brazil. They think “Voyages” means sailing trips!
ANAÏS: I think what lies behind the literary magazine or Magic Circles, is a wish to unify a circle of friends It has never been a commercial thing Many magazines are being collected now by universities as collector’s items, because very famous writers were therein published before they were known The whole history of the literary magazine is very beautiful and uncommercial The magazines have been a great boon to the writers. So whenever I have a good writer that I know I can persuade, you know, to establish himself, I send him or her to you
WILLIAM: The literary magazine has really been the best outlet for authors from Ezra Pound to you here.
Daisy Aldan: For people like T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Ezra Pound, Caresse Crosby, before her Portfolio and Black Sun Press, and innumerable people who never gained public recognition, the little magazines always served their purpose. They contained the seeds that bear the future fruit.
Valerie: How do you publicize “Voyages”?
WILLIAM: By word of mouth. It’s just impossible to advertise. The cost of a little advertisement in something like “The New York Review of Books” is too much. Even in the “Washington Post”, an ad costs something like $200. Full pages are $4,000. “The New Yorker” charges $25,000 for a half page.
Nancy Williamson: Do you exchange ads with other magazines?
WILLIAM: That’s always a good thing to do.
Frances Steloff: I always felt that the publishers should contribute to the support of little magazines because they eventually get the benefit of them. They watch how an author develops with magazines. I think this is only right because they use the magazines for their purpose but contribute nothing.
WILLIAM: That’s a wonderful thought.
Frances Steloff: Writers first started out in the magazines. The novels are put out on installment and then later gathered into a book. Hemingway first appeared in “This Quarter”, Eliot began in “The Criterion”. All the important writers have first appeared in magazines. I remember having a letter that Joyce wrote to his agent, thinking that nobody was interested in his work. Then Joyce appeared in “Transition” – think of all those “Transition” writers! How else? What other outlet did they have until they proved they could write.
Yet the magazine is not supported and has such a difficult time surviving. I always gave the magazines first row in the window, and the rest were always placed in front at the shop. Andreas Brown now puts them in back, which is terrible, I think. We quarreled about it all the time. I tried to get them back up front so that people can drop in and look them over. I know many people who come in for that.
So the publishers should be approached and pressed on this angle. They get the benefits. What’s a few thousand dollars a year to them? They earn it back. They have scouts that they pay much more to find material.
Adele: Big publishers now are owned by huge companies to whom $3,000 can be written off easily as a tax loss. Maybe they’d even like to do that.
WILLIAM: There might be a danger though; they’d want to dominate them. Xerox was interested in buying “Voyages” three years ago, but I didn’t even talk to them. They wanted the rights to put it on microfilm, which was okay, because they do that sort of thing, but then they wanted to put their own people in it. Xerox can get so many things but they couldn’t get my magazine.
Adele: That is heroic…
Valerie: What do your writers and artists do to support themselves?
WILLIAM: Josephine Miles is an extraordinary woman. She is a professor of English at Berkeley, who has been a cripple all of her life and lives in a wheelchair. She writes absolutely beautiful poetry. Jane Cooper is a professor of English at Sarah Lawrence. Caroline Gordon writes wonderful novels. She was Alan Tate’s wife. I published young writers. One was a young black high school girl from Texas. I didn’t know who she was but just accepted her poem from the pile. The writers range. Most people who write for these magazines are not concerned about money. If they were they wouldn’t send you anything in the first place. They simply know better. So it’s not even a consideration.
ANAÏS I think that writers have accepted that there were two kinds of market; the literary and college magazines that can’t pay and the commercial publishers.
WILLIAM: It would not hurt a young writer or artist or photographer to get in some magazines and develop a national reputation for their future work. I’ve tried to pay something from time to time. I do what I can. They benefit themselves by getting “credits” with the magazines.
Ann Roche: I don’t want to get too personal, but do you have an independent income?
WILLIAM: I am, to this point in my life, still a bachelor which enables me to put some money into the magazine.
Ann Roche: Do you earn money from your own writings?
WILLIAM: No, I write poems, which don’t bring in money. I have been gainfully employed all my life. I’ve been very lucky to have had interesting jobs.
As a little gift to everyone here I want to give you something I wrote in the midst of an interminable afternoon business meeting. I looked out over these buildings in Washington and their boxiness reminded me of the Soviet Union. It was February, and the sun started to come out at 3:15 in the afternoon. I wrote a poem right there on the spot while I was thinking of Anaïs Nin. I sent it to her and to “Nation Magazine”, which published it. I have a copy of it for each one of you as a memento of this “furrawn”:
THINKING OF ANAÏS NIN
I dream of wayward gulls
and all landless lovers
Rare moments of winter sun
Peace, privacy, for everyone.
Evelyn Hinz: Mr. Claire, being in the position where you are reading the work of other writers, as well as being a writer yourself, and realizing that should you publish something, you will perhaps be giving this person his/her first start, and if you reject it denying a talent, is fallibility a problem for an editor?
WILLIAM: Oh very much so. In Anaïs’ Diary, or maybe in the Novel of the Future, she writes about how damaging this can be to a writer’s reputation, especially a young writer. I have never sent a rejection slip without a little note, even though a lot of people send completely unsuitable things to the magazine, which gets discouraging. But I try not to hurt any feelings, because writing is an expression, after all, of something. I tell some people that they have the wrong magazine, that perhaps they might want to send their poem to Hallmark Cards or “McCall’s.”
Frances: I think that’s a ticklish thing. You hate to encourage people to do something bad – bad poetry or bad anything – and you can’t tell when or how they will develop, and so I think it’s best to be honest with them, to tell them the truth and say, keep trying. I think that they have to be told that it’s not good yet.
In The Poetry Society of America poems are read and judged anonymously, which helps. I think that we who have to make judgments should get to the point where we can tell writers that it’s really not good poetry now, but keep on trying. Look at H.L. Mencken. He bought every copy of his first book of poems in order to destroy them. He paid high prices too. When we found out what he did with them, we stopped selling them to him.
Practice is good for writers; it builds their capacity to do better. I think many writers would develop into something good if given an opportunity. Writers need sympathetic readers more than they need food. I’ve always felt that, anyway. They have to have an audience. If not an audience, at least someone who will be interested in their work. And I always tried to meet that need.
Trew: Bill tries to respond to everyone in a way that will be helpful. He is gentle and giving, yet he speaks little of himself or of his inner feelings. He is a mystery. He also is a good balance here and represents man well.